“But I’m not good at flower arrangements,” I protested, when another sister had too much to do and asked me to take over her job of fixing flowers for the altar.
“Think of it as making a salad,” she encouraged me, “because you arrange beautiful salads.” That was news to me, but as I accepted the new job, I discovered I enjoyed mixing and matching colors and forms as much as I delighted in cooking a good dinner for the community and adding a fresh sprig of parsley on a dish as the finishing touch.
Photo by Nils Toldnes
In cooking for my monastery in Tautra Mariakloster, Norway, I aim to make food that looks appetizing and tastes delightful. Long gone are the days when a monk would strew ashes on his food as a penance. We are to enjoy all that God has created, for He himself has seen that it’s good.
One of the principles of monastic meals is that we use what we have. This is a microcosm of the main thrust of our life as Cistercian nuns: We receive, in faith, everything God gives us in order to come closer to Him.
So when we were given four cases of frozen pizza dough, they became not only potato-and-salmon pizza (see the recipe below), but also garlic-and-herb breadsticks and spinach-and-cheese rolls. Another sister created pie crust out of the dough. I even tried making empanadas with it. And whenever I come across an interesting recipe, I don’t hesitate to try it, substituting rare ingredients (monkfish) for something closer to hand (local cod). Or, because we are vegetarians most of the time, I substitute fish for meat (salmon lasagna).
A few of the other principles of monastic life—worship, service, prayer, and rest—also find their way into the kitchen too.
To worship God is to praise God as He is, as He comes, and to accept the gift He’s giving in the present moment. For us, using all of the ingredients God created and praising Him for them is a form of worship. When our neighbor gave us a whole crate of carrots, we froze, grated, and chopped them, making carrot cake, carrot bread, carrot cookies, carrot casserole, and carrot pizza. When blueberries and raspberries are in season, we sprinkle them on top of a salad as an eye-pleasing delight.
Photo by Nils Toldnes
Creating meals is also a form of service, following the pattern of the Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve. For example, cutting up raw vegetables can be quite time-consuming, especially when we could use frozen or canned vegetables. However, the goal is not to just get another meal on the table, but to give pleasure to those we serve in doing so.
In this way, we take the Incarnation seriously: Whatever we do to others, we do to Jesus. If Jesus were coming to dinner, would we not do everything we could to delight His senses? Thus the cook should pay attention not only to the sense of taste, but to the other senses as well. And of course, a meal beautifully presented on the table is an invitation to praise the Giver of all good things.
Photo by Brother Martin Horwath, OCSO
God’s creative process concluded with a day of rest, and the monastic day alternates between work, prayer, reading, and rest. When I was a novice I was tasked with baking bread for the community. This meant I had to leave Church in the middle of vigils to mix 32 pounds of dough by hand. By the time I had set it to rise, my body was so worn out physically that I sank to the Church floor when I returned to finish my prayers.
I discovered that while my body was tired, the physical activity increased my endorphins, and my mind was wide awake for prayer. It was actually easier to focus on God with my body resting quietly in the background. I learned that St. Benedict was really on to something when he chose the motto “Ora et labora”—“work and prayer” for his order. This is also how we take the Incarnation seriously; we aren’t just souls, we have a body, and it can contribute to our life in God.
Photo by Brother Martin Horwath, OCSO
Monastic work often consists of a simple task repeated rhythmically: weeding a garden; pouring soap into molds; making sets of liturgy papers; sweeping the cloister; washing windows. Work in the kitchen often fits this quiet, rhythmic work: peeling potatoes; chopping carrots; kneading dough; placing cookie dough on baking sheets; washing dishes; assembling the ingredients of a casserole or a salad.
It’s an opportunity for the cook to let his or her hands work while the mind is freed to turn to God and receive the gift of God’s presence in that moment. I encourage all cooks to open themselves up to anything God might be trying to tell you. I think you’ll find these precious moments won’t be long enough, and you’ll have to gently remind yourself to go on to the next task.
The most important thing for the faith-filled cook (or any other servant in the kingdom of God) is to be nourished spiritually by the task at hand. Everything is a gift from God, and God invites us to partake of the feast of abundant life. Thank God and welcome to the table!
Potato and Salmon Pizza
1 ready-to-use pizza dough
2 medium potatoes
8 oz. grated cheese
1 large onion
Your choice: salmon, shrimp, olives, mushrooms, peppers, grated carrot, garlic
Herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, celery salt
Unroll the pizza dough on a baking sheet and discard the paper backing (If you do not have a Teflon baking sheet, it’d be wise to drizzle flour on the baking sheet so the pizza doesn’t stick.) Brush the dough with olive oil.
Use a food processor to slice the potatoes as thin as possible. Place them on the dough in a single layer. Mince the onion in the food processor, and then microwave it with a little butter for three minutes. Scatter the onion over the potato slices.
Now it’s up to your creativity: Add salmon bits, shrimp, vegetables, (this is a great way to use leftovers) and herbs. I put the cheese on last and save some peppers to make the surface colorful. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees until the cheese is golden. I’ve found it’s easiest to cut up a pizza with scissors.